Cinema Australia Original Content:
Guest writer Alex von Hoffman shares his stories from the making of Western Australian dinosaur short, Evie.
The ambition short film is set in a world decimated by nuclear war, where barbaric clans and genetically modified dinosaurs roam the Australian countryside. A young girl, Evie (Melody Rom), must venture alone to a distant farmhouse to seek medical supplies for her dying father (Ben Mortley).
Evie is directed by Alex von Hofmann and written by Luke Martin from a story by Atticus Martin. The film starts Melody Rom, Ben Mortley, Paul Montague and Leon Ewing.
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by Alex von Hofmann
Everyone knows what ‘they’ (people in the film biz) say about working with children and animals. I’ve worked with both and yes, there are challenges. But there’s a lesser-known challenge that every indie and low-budget filmmaker should be warned about, particularly in this era of effects-driven extravaganzas on streamers and big screens.
Beware of working with CG characters in your low-budget film. Sounds obvious, right? Well, a lot of us seem to have missed this advice or are willfully ignoring it.
Now, I should know this lesson well and truly, having already made a handful of films with some complex VFX elements in them, including my second funded short, Tinglewood, which was nominated for an AFI (they are called AACTAs now) for Best VFX, up against Daybreakers and Tomorrow When The War Began. Both feature films made on a few hundred times our budget. We didn’t win, but Will Manning, the unicorn who made the VFX happen in that film, attended and has gone on to have a great career in the industry.
Maybe this early success is one reason why I hadn’t completely learnt my lesson yet when I started planning my most recent film, Evie. Luke Martin and Kate Separovich (a writer and producer team who I have worked with a bunch of times, also husband and wife) had come to me with a script for a short film about a girl called Evie who lives in a post-apocalyptic world ruled by wild dinosaurs and Mad Max style gangs. I loved the concept straight away – the script was great, the Western Australian landscape was a vivid character, the stakes were high, the action set pieces would be a blast to film. I was in.
There was just this little CG dinosaur to figure out. No worries. We will get funding, all the right people will come on board. That VFX will spring to life!
Smash cut to three years later. The dinosaur is all done. It’s in the film. It looks beautiful. Throw a premiere and make some speeches. Crack open a coldie. Good work team. Cue the festivals and the awards.
Ok, that all happened and it was wonderful, but let’s rewind a little. This is real life after all.
Those three years between shooting and fiiiinaaalllly finishing the film felt like an eternity to me. We finished filming in January of 2018. I moved to Melbourne and much of the editing happened over Skype. We locked the edit by mid that year and we started looking for someone to work on the VFX. Unfortunately, our dreams of funding hadn’t worked out and we were now making the film on a shoestring. That meant attracting people to the project to work for free and pulling in favours. And Kate and I really did get to work with some of the best people in Perth, which was a joy. But when it came to the VFX, folks that would take on such an ambitious project were few and far between. And we started to realise that this wasn’t just ambitious – what we were asking for was bordering on epic.
Look, I just wanted a Jurassic World quality dinosaur in my film – an Australovenator to be precise, which was Australia’s take on a raptor. Or something like it. I had shot most of it dark, very inspired by Ridley Scott’s Alien, drawing on the experience we had from the previous VFX heavy shorts I’d done. The camera was always locked off, there were only 11 shots, which was sparing for a monster film. It was all planned to a tee. How hard could the VFX be? Very, apparently. And very expensive, apparently.
We ended up having a few false starts – we found some people, they had a crack, we lost some people. We had various work presented to us, but none of it was of the quality we needed. And all the while time kept ticking by. And I was starting to despair a little, I have to admit. We had an edit that I really liked. A lot of really good work done by a lot of really good people. But it was starting to look like this little indie short would never be seen by audiences. That was pretty devastating. But we didn’t give up.
In 2020, at the height of COVID lockdown 2 (I think?), Kate, producer extraordinaire, found us a very special person. Enter Ben Wotton, backlit by a sunset, hair flowing in the wind, a winning smile and a look of extreme capable-ness in his eyes. Ben is a digital compositor who works with ILM and other VFX companies on things like Marvel films. He’s a VFX unicorn. He’s also, as it turns out, a huge dinosaur nerd. And he liked our film.
Ben and I had a chat, we went through the shots and discussed what would be needed to make them look the way I wanted them to look. And to my surprise, Ben actually encouraged me to be more ambitious. We could make this dinosaur look incredible. And then, this is every director’s dream, Ben showed me a shot he had already created, with a dinosaur model we could use in our film. And it looked insane. It’s the opening shot of our trailer. Look at it now, then come back to read the rest.
Tell me that’s not exciting.
But, there was a catch. Ben is not an animator. We would need to find one. He would do the work on the model, the texturing, lighting, compositing, everything to make that bad boy look incredible in our Alien-style footage, but we would need to get the model animated. So we started looking for an animator. Back to the same problem – so much work, so expensive. No one would do it.
Eventually, I confessed to Ben that I had done one semester of Maya (VFX software for pros) back in 2004. I had sucked at it but maybe, just maybe, I could learn to be passable with a little coaching. And, because sometimes the universe is kind to us in mysterious ways, we had just entered another COVID lockdown and I had nothing else to do. So, I told my wife and kids they wouldn’t get much more out of me than mumbles and rants about how many times Maya crashed that day for the next month or so and I buckled down.
Ben helped me a lot. I mean A LOT. Maya is like an alien language, like being handed the Rosetta stone and told to write an essay in that language. It’s like picking up marbles with chopsticks while your hands are tied behind your back. But, one shot at a time, I started delivering Ben useable shots. And that way, we got through them. In the end, there were two shots I couldn’t master. The movement was just too tricky for me and we ended up bringing on a very talented animator to do those two shots, Tran Thanh Tuan, and boy did he deliver.
With all the shots handed over to Ben, he made masterful work of getting them in the film and looking beautiful. We wrapped up post by the end of 2020 and I travelled back to Perth in January 2021 to have a cast and crew premiere. I got a little unlucky and had to spend two weeks in quarantine (thanks Covid), but got out just in time for our premiere.
So there you have it. Finished shooting in Jan 2018. Premiere in Jan 2021. Three years.
There were plenty of road bumps along the way. Would I do it again? Sure, but I’d call Ben before I started shooting. But, of course, we didn’t know Ben back then, the funding we planned on didn’t happen, and hindsight is a thing, but the point of the story here is that with VFX there should come a VERY healthy dose of caution. Don’t wait till post to figure out the who, how, and how much. And any of you who are planning a project right now, I wish on you the blessing of finding those magical VFX unicorns that know how to make it all happen, and that they love you and your project and that, even better, you land a chunk of money to pay them, because we need to keep the VFX unicorns well fed.
Evie is playing at the Revelation Perth International Film Festival throughout July. Details here. This story gets way better with the catharsis of seeing the finished film. So get some tickets and go check it out. Please and thank you.